Smithsonian unite! Smithsonian employees from the Archives and beyond met at the conference. Courtesy of Heidi Stover.

The Archives Staff Kept Austin Weird at SAA 2019

This summer, members of the Archives staff packed their bags and headed to the 2019 Joint Annual Meeting of the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) and Society of American Archivists (SAA). When they returned, they reflected on the most useful sessions and the topics they hope will be covered in the future. 

This summer, some of our staff packed their bags and headed to the 2019 Joint Annual Meeting of the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) and Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Austin, Texas. This year’s theme was “Transformative!” Presenters and attendees explored power dynamics, transparency, preserving the histories of marginalized communities, and more!

The crew returned energized about everything they learn at the conference. Below, read what Ricc Ferrante, Marguerite Roby, Heidi Stover, and Mitch Toda had to say about their experiences in Texas!

Three women and one man pose in front of the SAA 2019 conference sign.

What was the most useful thing you learned that can be applied to your job?

Marguerite: The “Let’s Get Visual: Transformative New Strategies for Implementing Standardized Rights Statements” session was both my favorite and the most useful to me for thinking about how to refine our rights application and review process. Included were several decision trees from different institutions that we will be able to adapt to our own needs in an effort to improve how we communicate both internally and externally about the rights status of our materials and to clarify how our digitized material can be used.

Mitch: The most useful session I attended was "Let's Get Visual: Transformative New Strategies for Implementing Standardized Rights Statements." The session had speakers from universities present on their work/process of creating standardized rights statements for the materials in their collections. The visual tools ranged from spreadsheet based to flowchart styles. As the Smithsonian works towards providing open access to some of its collections, it will be increasingly important not only for our Archives, but other units and museums across the Smithsonian to provide clear and understandable rights information for the materials that we make available to the public. 

Ricc: There was an all day workshop and an additional session on software preservation and emulation that I found extremely promising and quite possibly transformative to how archivists approach the challenge of preserving and providing access to born digital records. The emulation preservation strategy has long been an intimidating prospect because of the difficulty in budgeting for unscheduled access needs years in the future and the potential cost of building an emulation environment a decade or more after the components became extinct. It has been much more manageable to use a strategy of format migration or the bare minimum of bit level preservation. However, the unfortunate reality is that the volume of important digital history archives are taking in is pushing the limits of our available resources. The Emulation as a Service Initiative and the Software Preservation Network efforts currently underway are quite likely to transform how quickly we, large and small archives, can make decades old records accessible and extend the window before interventions like file format migration become absolutely necessary. This is truly an exciting development in digital preservation.

What was the most interesting presentation you attended?

Marguerite: One of the most interesting sessions I attended was “What’s New: Copyright Legislation, Case Law, and Community Practice” because it is always helpful and fascinating to hear from experts about the intricacies of copyright law and how it applies to cultural heritage institutions. 

Heidi601 - Rarely Pure and Never Simple: Archivists, Journalists, and the Search for Truth. This presentation was fascinating and honestly changed my mind about how to work with journalist/the media.  Yes, I want to put them in the regular queue for answering their questions, but as one of the presenters pointed out, they are working on insane deadlines. As archivists, we try our best to provide access to materials in timely manner, but the struggle of a “rush” order is very difficult sometimes.  Issues like this really push for increased digitization and public access. Another aspect of this presentation was that archivists can assist in “finding the truth”.  Whatever that may be?

Mitch: The most interesting presentation I attended was called "Beyond Neutrality: Righting Wrongs and Striving Toward Representation" which featured archivists who are actively working to make their collections and practices more diverse. The best example was from Western Carolina University which featured a filing cabinet with a collection that no one in the archives wanted to address, but which contained a historically rich and important collection of a Black Oral History Project conducted by the university.  The Special and Digital Collections Librarian took it upon herself to make the collection known and available by tracking down signed releases and other documentation that would allow the collection to be open and accessible.

Ricc: There was a panel session called “Demystifying the Digital: Providing User Access to Born-Digital Records in Varying Contexts” where three institutions talked about their approaches to this challenge. North Carolina State University Libraries, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the Wisconsin Historical Society each presented different aspects of how they were making it possible for researchers to use their archives’ records. NCSU’s use of Named Entity Recognition technology to make the digital content easier to dig into is definitely one that I want to follow-up on. The one I found most intriguing was a presentation by Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Stefana Breitweiser (former SI Archives intern) on how they had updated their finding aids with links to born digital content. With the unique formats many digital archives have to address, finding a meaningful way to make their digital original records discoverable within the finding aid has been a struggle for many of use. I think we’ve go a lot to learn from CCA’s approach. 

What is a topic you'd like to see on next year's schedule?

Ricc: We absolutely need to hear about the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Software Preservation report and other work along these lines. I think it is essential that the archival profession, no, the cultural heritage professions, take a good hard look at the legal issues surrounding software preservation and access. How do the legal concepts of fair use and copyright apply? Should archivists preserve software and the files created differently, such as the Wordstar application versus digital correspondence in the Wordstar document format? There has been important progress made to clarify the issues and create tools to help our professions work through these questions over the past two years.

Mitch: While digitization of collections to make them more accessible is a great thing, it would be of importance to see studies or data about how the usage of digitized collections has increased the use of those collections that were not already highly used to begin with and to what extent digitized collections helped contributed to journal articles and other research. The cost in terms of equipment, storage, software, infrastructure, and staff to digitize and make collections available online is substantial and it would be great to see more hard numbers as to the research impact digitized collections have.

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